The Formation of the Republican Party: 1850 to 1865
Part One: 1850 to 1856
On July 6, 1854, a crowd that numbered as high as 10,000, crowded into Jackson, Michigan in what has often been considered the founding of the Republican Party. The crowd was unexpected, yet would fervently endorse the party’s platform which entailed a mix of conservative Whig improvements, such as the creation of a Pacific Railroad and federal funding for harbor and river improvements, along with radical abolitionist policies. On that account, the party sought an immediate end to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a return to the Missouri Compromise, and the admission of Kansas into the Union as a free state. The Republicans also favored giving the Wilmot Proviso another chance. Fueled by the writing of men like Horace Greely, who in fact came to be influential in the naming of the Republican Party, state after state began forming local republican organizations across the North in the mid 1850s. The party’s first test came in the midterm elections of 1854, which showed mixed results. Over the course of the next few years the party would face several setbacks, and hardships, though no year was as difficult as the first. In just six politically charged years, the coalition of radicals, conservatives, former Whigs, Free Soilers and Know-Nothings, anti-slavery Democrats, nativists and foreigners, were able to form a cohesive party across the North. By 1860, the Republicans would have the presidency with the election of Abraham Lincoln. Slavery is the single most important issue in understanding how the Republicans could come to win the Presidency in 1860 without winning a single Southern state.
The Republican Party Forms around the Issue of Slavery
Slavery is quite possibly the most influential issue underlying American politics from 1776 to 1865, and the single greatest issue in the formation of the Republican party. This is a bold assertion, but the slavery issue never went away precisely because it was connected to everything, and most importantly because it was directly tied to national growth; and between 1776 and 1860 the country grew at an unprecedented rate. Every time the nation expanded, slavery was at the forefront of the debate. Should a territory be admitted as a slave or as a free state? Should there be a constant balance of power between slave and free states, or should slavery be quarantined to where it already existed, with guarantees for its protection? Political parties were forced to deal with these questions and even formed around them. Indeed, the Constitution itself, the founding document of the modern American political system, is itself a product of compromise over the issue of slavery. By the 1850s compromise no longer seemed possible. The Democrats had become a party increasingly rooted in the Southern states, with the Northern political scene in a state of disarray. Out of this turmoil, emerged the Republican Party. However, in order to understand the coalition that would become the republicans, it is necessary to briefly review some of the major events in the course of the fight over slavery, along with the rise and demise of the existing political parties.
The Policies Which Made Sectionalism a Reality
In 1820 the Missouri Compromise was passed in order to add vast new territories to the United States without upsetting the balance of power between the slave states and the free. The compromise essentially admitted Maine into the Union as a free state, Missouri as a slave state, and further forbid the spreading of slavery into any of the new territories north of the thirty-sixth parallel, with the exception of Missouri itself. The compromise also made guarantees that slavery would not be attacked in the places where it already existed. The Missouri Compromise was a work of sheer genius in terms of the fact that it created a relatively stable political scene for decades to come. This is not to say slavery was unimportant during this time, but merely to suggest that there was a balance of power between slave and free, and that sectionalism had not yet taken over.
In 1845, before the election of James K. Polk, Congress annexed Texas and admitted a new slave state into the Union. This event contributed to a war with Mexico in 1846, which many Northerners feared to be a simple ploy by pro slavery factions to take control of the government and acquire new lands. President Polk, a slaveholder from Tennessee, was the head of a Democratic Party which was proving to be more and more Southern in character, and more and more isolated from the Northern elements of even its own membership. Politically, the territories were essential to the ambitions of the slave holding South and the free North. The new lands created the opportunity to tip the balance of power in government either for or against slavery. Because the new territories had to either be slave or free, there was no way for politicians to continue to dodge the slavery issue. It did not matter if a representative had strong feelings about slavery or not, there were going to be new states, and it had to be decided whether they would be free.
Many anti-extensionists had their worst fears realized when President Polk went to Congress to ask for additional funds from Congress to buy more land from Mexico in the coming peace treaty. The Northern anti-extension movement responded with the Wilmot Proviso in 1846. Under this plan, slavery would be banned in all of the new territories. This proposal completely derailed any sense of stability in the political scene. The proviso left no room for middle ground; it was a winner takes all proposal. In 1847, the stakes were raised further when Preston King of New York, added a passage to the proviso banning the expansion of slavery into all new territories, not just the ones acquired from Mexico. The bill was defeated, though it remained politically important, and was to be a central issue in the election of 1848. This proposal had numerous consequences. For one, it would have meant a permanent minority status for slave states in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Southerners saw this as the long awaited attack on slavery that they always expected.
The Wilmot Proviso was supported by many who were not abolitionists but merely did not want to see slavery spread into what was potentially land where whites could be socially mobile. Land ownership was available in the West, and that afforded the chance to improve one’s life and dilute the population of the overwhelmed cities. In the West, with hard work, it was believed whites could live the American dream. Some, like Lincoln, supported the proposal because they saw it as a way of gradually giving slavery a natural death. It was believed that if new lands were closed to slavery, at the least, slavery would be contained, and at best, it would outlive its usefulness. By the end of 1846, Charles Sumner, a Whig from Massachusetts, predicted in a letter to Salmon Chase, that there would be “a new crystallization of parties, in which there shall be one grand Northern Party of Freedom.” Sumner’s prediction would prove to be true, and Chase would have much to do with it.
Early Anti-Slavery Parties
The proviso was the immediate cause of the founding of the Free Soil party, co-founded by Salmon P. Chase of Ohio. Salmon Chase is an interesting politician in that while he would find himself a member of the Whig, Liberty, and Free Soil parties, he is best remembered for his role in the Republican Party as Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln. The Free Soilers were a union of former Liberty party members, Northern anti-extension Democrats, Whigs and others, whose central cause was the passage of the Wilmot Proviso. Many of the party’s members were former Liberty party men, of whom, some were abolitionists while others believed not in abolition, but rather that the federal government should be divorced from the issue of slavery all together. The Liberty Party saw slavery as a state’s rights issue, although it believed the government possessed the power to abolish slavery. The Liberty party did promote rights for blacks in the North, and denounced the three-fifths clause of the Constitution. While it lasted, the party was able to attain a degree of influence with both Northern Whigs and Democrats.
In 1848, the Free Soil party would articulate different views than the Liberty party. The Free Soilers were purely anti-expansionist, they did not claim the federal government had the power to abolish slavery where it existed, nor did they attack the Constitution. The Free Soilers did not fight for black rights, and were not as ideological as the Liberty party. They were for a time, pragmatists who settled on anti-expansion as a unifying principle between their Whig, Liberty, and Free-Democratic membership. The most powerful section of the coalition was the “barnburner” Northern Democrats, particularly those from New York, who broke with the rest of their Southern minded colleagues. Chiefly, members of the Free Soil Party were dissatisfied with the Democrats and the Whigs alike, who were both nominating slave holders to the presidency. In 1848 however, the Free Soilers were badly beaten by both the Democrats, and the Whig victor, Zachary Taylor.
The Compromise of 1850
The next major piece of legislation to create a national stir was the Compromise of 1850. The compromise was less a compromise, than it was a series of bills encompassing proposals, some of which benefited the North, some of which benefited the South. By breaking each issue down into its own bill, it was found that a majority of both the North and South’s goals could be reached. For instance, the North allowed California to enter as a free state, and got slavery outlawed in Washington D.C.The South got a new Fugitive Slave Law, and Texas received millions of dollars in claims. The chief architects of the compromise were Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, who found the Fillmore administration easier to work with than that of Taylor's. The most controversial aspect of the bill was the strengthening of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. While some Southerners actually found the bill to be too weak, ultimately not a single southern state voted against its inclusion in the compromise. Essentially the South had asserted its right to reclaim any runaway slaves that made it to free soil. The property rights of Southerners was thus to take precedence over the laws of northern states. Thus from time to time groups of armed federal marshals, or posies from the South would venture to the North to reclaim various blacks. This was the cause of much animosity in the North, and is an example of how the Compromise of 1850 may have actually accelerated sectionalism rather than national unity.
The 1852 Presidential election pitted the Democrat Franklin Pierce against the Whig Winfield Scott. Pierce won the election rather easily, but this contest can be seen as significant towards the future Republican party for several reasons. Firstly, through the politics of the campaign, it showed that nativism was a force to be reckoned with. The allegiance of the Irish Catholic vote, and likewise of those who hated Catholics had to be considered by all parties from here on. Secondly, it was at this juncture that the first “Free-Democrats” began to break with the national party. Free Democrats had a poor showing in the 1852 election but did emerge stronger than they were before. The party had endorsed internal improvements, as well as some free soil principles, which led many political spectators to believe that the Free Democrats would be able to capitalize on the declining Whig party. In fact, in 1852 and 1853, many Whigs were forming alliances with Free Democrats. Those early alliances would undoubtedly play a role in the future coalition of the Republican party.
The Kansas Nebraska Act Speeds Things Up
In 1854 the Kansas Nebraska Act was passed which admitted Kansas into the Union, leaving it up to the citizens to decide whether or not to be free or slave. This essentially nullified the Missouri Compromise and signaled to Northerners that slavery would not simply die out on its own. The notion of popular sovereignty, or allowing the citizens of a territory to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave, was championed by Senator Stephan Douglas, an Illinois Democrat. The Act could potentially expand slavery, though Douglas thought that popular sovereignty would be preferable to the North over government regulation. Douglas knew that Kansas would undoubtedly enter as a free state, and thought therefore that it would be acceptable to the North. In reality, the North saw this as an expansion of the slave power in the South. Ironically, the position was also not popular in the South and ended up alienating Stephens and splitting the Democratic Party. Southerners saw popular sovereignty as a tool for adding more free states and thus lost touch with their Democratic brothers in the North. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is the single most important piece of legislation in the formation of the Republican party. Only a day after the release of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Chase and Sumner joined a small group of representatives and drafted the “Appeal of Independent Democrats.” The drafters of this appeal were not all abolitionists yet all were ardent anti-expansionists. Most of the appeal was written by Chase, who had both a sense of eloquence of words, and also urgency of action. Part of the appeal reads:
We warn you that the dearest interests of freedom and the Union are in imminent peril. Demagogues may tell you that the Union can be maintained only by submitting to the demands of slavery. We tell you that the safety of the Union can only be insured by the full recognition of the just claims of freedom and man… We shall go home to our constituents, erect anew the standard of freedom, and call on the people to come to the rescue of the country from the domination of slavery…
The Republican party was to be the new party Chase spoke of, and would rise largely as a response to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On June 16, 1854 Horace Greely wrote in his newspaper:
We should not care whether those thus united (against the extension of slavery into the West) were designated ‘Whig’, ‘Free Democrat’ or something else; though we think some simple name like ‘Republican’ would more fitly designate those who had united to restore the Union to its true mission of champion and promulgator of Liberty rather than propagandist of slavery.”
Within months of Chase’s appeal, but before Greely had coined the name Republican as a name to settle on, groups of Northerners began coming together to debate how to handle the Nebraska crisis. To this point, the men were united only in their distain for the Act itself, yet they were beginning to find more in common. In one particular meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, Alvan E. Bovey presided over a group of fifty three Whigs, Free Soilers, and Democrats. When the convention was over, he happily wrote to Greely, that the men came from various groups but left Republicans. While this meeting is very important to the early foundations of the Republican party, it cannot be yet seen as the moment that Republicans became viable. Across the state, numerous other conventions were held, often endorsing fusion candidates of anti-slavery Democrats, Whigs, and independents, none of whom yet called themselves Republicans.
The First Republicans
Thus the political climate of the middle 1850s was highly chaotic, with Conscience Northern Whigs, splitting with Southern Cotton Whigs, and Free Democrats splitting with popular sovereignty Democrats, who were even further removed from the Deep South’s ultra proslavery Democrats. The scene was further confused by a Free Soil party which was already splintering, nativist Know-Nothings who started as anti-slavery but would come to adopt a pro-slavery stance, and the emergence of a Republican Party. The midterm elections of 1854 reflected the confusion. Amazingly, the Republicans were able to capture 100 seats in Congress including sweeping the state of Michigan, though they were still a minority to the Democrats.
Through 1854 and 1855, the Republicans were forced to compete with the Know-Nothings, who were now calling themselves the American Party. The party represented mostly big city interests, and was really a reaction to the skyrocketing numbers of immigrants pouring into the country following 1845. The Know-Nothings gained from the political instability but could not expand beyond the major cities. Their platform was not very sophisticated and boiled down to a hatred of immigrants, particularly Catholics. For a while, it seemed anti-slavery and anti-foreigner were intertwined sentiments. The Know-Nothings started with an anti-slavery platform; however their true intention was merely to stop the spread of slavery, and to get the issue out of national politics. However, by 1856, the American Party endorsed a platform which supported slavery. This made the Republicans the only truly anti-slavery party with a viable life in government, and gave the party a base to build itself around in fighting both the Democrats and the remaining third party members.
In 1855, William Seward joined the Republican party and instantly became the presumed frontrunner to run the party. Seward was important to the Republicans for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his influence in New York, the largest electoral state in the union. Seward was potentially capable of delivering New York’s 35 electoral votes for the Republicans, as well as being an elder and respected statesman. The Blair family also came to be important to the Republicans in 1855. Although the Blairs were a family of Southern born slave holders, Blair senior had split with the Democrats in the wake of the Mexican War, and the subsequent expansion of slavery into the new territories. Blair senior had two sons, of whom Frank would come to serve as a Republican congressman representing Missouri. The other son, Montgomery would achieve national fame in a few short years as the lawyer who would defend Dred Scott. However, in 1855, the family was significant to the Republicans chiefly in that they were amongst the first to instigate a Republican national party nominating convention for the following summer, and the 1856 election.
By 1856, the Republicans were able to pick up a few more seats in off year elections, bringing their total to at least 108, depending on how one counts sympathies. Thanks to that success, later that year the Republicans were able to get Nathanial P. Banks, a Know-Nothing from Massachusetts elected Speaker of the House. While not a thru and thru Republican, this was undoubtedly a Republican victory, as the Republicans were able to elect a fusion speaker without getting any support from the Southern states. For the first time, the Republicans were able to break through the Democrat’s control of the system, albeit through a coalition. That year, on February 22nd, the birthday of George Washington, the Republicans held their first national convention in Pittsburgh.
The Convention was reported to have been widely attended, and fairly harmonious. To read Horace Greely’s accounts, would simply be to be reminded of how strongly he felt towards the Republican cause. The convention was significant because, besides being the first, it laid out in writing, the Republican platform through a series of resolutions. These resolutions read:
First. Demands repeal of all laws allowing the introduction of Slavery into Territories once consecrated to freedom, and the resistance by constitutional means of the existence of Slavery in any Territory.
Second. Support by all lawful measures the Free-State men in Kansas in their resistance to the usurped authority of lawless invaders, and favors its immediate admission into the Union as a Free State.
Third. Strongly urges the Republican organization to resist and overthrow the present National Administration, as it is identified with the progress of the Slave power to national supremacy.
Clearly, slavery was at the heart of the Republican cause. The “repeal of all laws allowing the introduction of slavery into territories” is a clear attack on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, of two years prior, which had undone the Missouri Compromise. In the second resolution, a reference is made to the free men of Kansas being under attack by lawless invaders. This is a reference to the violence which was present throughout much of Kansas. The passage of popular sovereignty endorsed the idea of what Northerners referred to as “squatter-Republics.” This name came in reference to the fact that many Southerners were moving north to Kansas to swell the pro-slavery vote. There were also numerous acts of violence, the case of Lawrence being one of the more notorious. The third resolution is pretty stunning. Having identified the Democrats as a party of pure Southern slave interest, the Republicans were essentially claming the fate of the Union to be in peril under Democratic leadership. It was thus the moral imperative of the Republicans to take power. The next chance they would have was in the 1856 presidential election. As their representative, the Republicans chose John C. Fremont of California who managed to secure 359 out of 553 votes at the convention.
Part Two: 1856 to Lincoln's Death
The First Presidential Contest
In 1856 the Democrats nominated James Buchanan who squared off against Fremont. This was not a friendly election. Earlier in the year Horace Greely had been attacked by an enraged Arkansas Democrat outside Washington, and as early as the spring just before the election, Congressman Sumner was canned in his office by an angry Democrat. Although Chase and Seward were far better known, Fremont was able to secure the Republican nomination fairly easily, because he had bona fide anti-slavery credentials, was born in the South which was seen as a plus, and most importantly, he had played little role in the formation of the Republican party, thus making few enemies. William Dayton was chosen to be his running mate, and as a former Whig, this helped solidify the conservative base of the Republicans. Interestingly, this is also the first time that many Republicans heard the name of Abraham Lincoln. On the last day of the Vice Presidential nominating, Lincoln was nominated. He finished second, behind Dayton, though almost no one had ever heard a word he had said. His relatively strong showing was based largely on his reputation as an honest man of principle.
Fremont knew he would have no chance in the South but could compete in some of the border states. Buchanan, on the other hand, was not the favorite in his party going into the race. The Democrats were fractured in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and ended up settling on Buchanan largely because he had had little to do with the affair on account of the fact that he had been out of the country as Minister to Britain. Buchanan’s strategy was simply to ride the party in the South and appeal to the border states and North by calling the Republicans traitors and instigators of unrest. The results were to be expected, though the Republicans had reasons to be hopeful. Fremont had won New England, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and Ohio attaining 114 electoral votes. Buchanan won the South, nearly all the boarder states, and New Jersey and Pennsylvania among others, taking a comfortable 174 electoral votes. Although the Republicans lost several key states, the votes were close, and although the American party would cease to exist from this point on, it was known that they had siphoned votes away from the republicans in at least this election. In the House, the Republicans held ninety-two seats to the one hundred and eighteen taken by the Democrats. Twenty-six seats went to other parties. The Senate was far more imbalanced, as the Democrats held thirty-six seats to the Republicans twenty. Eight seats went to third parties.
Dred Scott Further Divides the Country
Certainly, the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott was a polarizing moment in 1857. In his decision Chief Justice Taney delivered an opinion which was crushing to abolitionists and many in the North in general. Essentially Taney denied blacks the rights of citizenship anywhere in the Union, whether free state or not. He cited that whether an individual state chose to give an individual certain rights or not, it did not necessarily mean that that individual had the same rights as a citizen of the nation. Indeed the word “citizen” as used in the Constitution was not meant to include blacks according to Taney. The decision also reinforced the Kansas-Nebraska Act, while further solidifying the Missouri Compromise as old and finished law. This decision drew sharp criticism from the North as many saw it as nationalizing slavery. In New York, the Daily Times wrote, “Slavery is no longer a local institution,- the creature of local law,- dependant for its existence and protection upon State sovereignty and State legislation. It is incorporated into the Constitution of the United States.” The matter was made worse by the revelation that Chief Justice Taney had made a deal with the President Buchanan in drafting the opinion. Northerners had more reason to feel betrayed. It is hard to do justice to the sentiment felt by Northerners. This was not merely a vindication of the existing slavery laws, this felt to people as though there was a conspiracy against the free North. One individual who could understand the way Northerners felt, and would use that sentiment perfectly, was Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln's Political Career Comes Life
In 1858, Lincoln was preparing to run on the Republican ticket for the Illinois Senate against his long time rival and presumed Democratic frontrunner Stephen Douglas. Lincoln, who had been heavily involved in the formation of the Illinois Republican party, but only had about two years of Republican party background since his Whig days, was facing off against one of the nation’s best known and best funded politicians. Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates across Illinois, understanding that as the underdog, he had everything to gain. Lincoln’s plan was to appeal to the middle-conservative, anti-slavery citizens. Douglas on the other hand, had little to gain from a debate with a small town lawyer, and had enormous problems within his own party.Douglas accepted the challenge however, and the stage was set for perhaps the most famous debates in American history. However, before these debates could get underway the nation’s eyes once again turned to Kansas.
In a town called Lecompton, Kansas, a group of pro-slavery Southerners had drafted a constitution for Kansas, and sought admission to the union as a slave state. The Buchanan administration, eager to please its Southern base, quickly accepted this constitution despite the fact that it was well known that the vast majority of Kansas’ citizens wanted the state to be free. Douglas, who himself championed the idea of popular sovereignty, was outraged. For all his faults, Douglas had not intended his position to lead to Kansas becoming a slave state. He most certainly did not want the citizens of Kansas to be cheated out of their own constitution. Thus, Douglas split with his own party on the issue, and openly supported the Republican attack on the Lecompton constitution. For a moment, it seemed as though Douglas might become a convert to the Republicans. Horace Greely even went so far as to ask Illinois Republicans to cross party lines and endorse Douglas for the Senate, something which would have been catastrophic for Lincoln. Lincoln however, had an uncanny ability to read people, as his ability to form a cabinet of his own rivals would later show. He believed Douglas’ schism to be temporary and a product of the Kansas issue at that moment. He correctly predicted Douglas would stay with the Democrats. In Illinois, Republicans do not seem to have ever taken Greely’s words to heart. On June 16, 1858, a nominating convention decided that Lincoln was Illinois’, “first and only choice… for the United States Senate, as the successor of Stephen A. Douglas.” Thus, the debates were going happen and would have enormous consequences on both the Republicans and the Democrats.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Through the course of the debates, Douglas chose to attack Lincoln’s upbringing, his patriotism, his appearance and his political experience. Douglas would go so far as to accuse Lincoln of siding with an enemy of the United States, referring to his lack of support for the Mexican War. Douglas also accused Lincoln of conspiring to make blacks and whites equal. Douglas, believed the fundamental issue at hand, was self government, or the right of the citizens of a given state to decide for themselves whether to be free or slave. By putting the debate in those terms, Lincoln was made out to be what he most certainly was not, a radical abolitionist. Racial fears and prejudices were certainly working against Lincoln.
There are many ways Lincoln could have responded to this type of political strategy. What he chose to do was respond with great rhetoric and wit. He pointed out, that when white men decide for themselves how to govern other white men, that is self government; but when White men choose to govern themselves, and all others, they have crossed the line of self government, and created despotism. Lincoln constantly used references to the Declaration of Independence and enlightenment ideals to stir a sense of priority and righteousness. He reminded or informed people that his position was not radically liberal but was actually conservative, and based on the founding principles of the United States. He argued the essence of the Declaration of Independence was repugnant to slavery, and the design of the Constitution was intended to gradually end the practice. His argument was plain and rooted in principles well understood by his audience. Where Douglas seemed to down play the credentials of his opponent, and play on racial prejudices, Lincoln’s responses were based on principle. It is hard to imagine the political culture of the time, yet there were points in the debate in which Douglas simply made fun of Lincoln’s appearance; this from the man who was possibly the most influential Senator of the time. Lincoln’s response is worth remembering:
Nobody has ever expected me to be President. In my poor, lean, lank face, nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting out. These are disadvantages all, taken together, that the Republicans labor under. We have to fight this battle upon principle and upon principle, alone.
Undoubtedly Lincoln’s uncanny ability for story telling was a great asset to him in these debates. Everywhere he went he was met with applause and cheers for his quips. Humor is a reflection of character, and Lincoln knew how to deflect insults and get even a lukewarm crowd to at least hear his side.
Ultimately, Lincoln was defeated, in no small part to the lack of support he received from Eastern Republicans, as well as the last minute desertion of thousands of Whigs who voted for Douglas in order to repay his anti-Lecompton stance. Though Lincoln stung from his defeat he would later write, “I believe I have made some marks which will tell for the cause of civil liberty long after I am gone… [the cause] must not be surrendered at the end of one, or even, one hundred defeats.”Lincoln correctly predicted the Democrat’s strength to be waning and knew the Republicans still had a chance.
Another Opportunity in 1860
Indeed, in the run-up to the 1860 election, the Republicans had put together a formidable voting bloc in the government. Aided by newcomers and converts, Republicans such as Sumner and Benjamin Wade of Ohio were able to block several of the Buchanan administration’s ambitious plans, including one to buy Cuba. Wade notoriously walked around Washington carrying a sawed off shotgun with him; there were to be no more canings of Republicans such as in years past. The Republicans were still a minority to the Democrats however, and though they could stop the Buchanan administration on some issues, they could not get their own agenda through either.
John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was a major blow to the Republicans, as it added fuel to the propaganda machine that the Republicans were instigating violence. This belief was aided by the fact that Brown had received funding from prominent Boston abolitionist Republicans. The first evidence of the damage done by Brown was seen in the election of the new Speaker of the House. The Republicans wanted abolitionist John Sherman, William Tecumseh Sherman’s younger brother, for the job, but had to settle on William Pennington, an old-line Whig. In many ways, this nomination along with the complexion of the party in 1860 reflected the divide within the Republicans. On the one hand they were conservative, on the other they were radicals. Slavery, and the hatred of it, kept these two wings together, though when the slavery issue was ended by the Civil War, these two groups would have little reason to stay together.
On May 16, 1860 the Republicans met in Chicago for their second national convention. The convention opened with an address from Judge Edwin D. Morgan of New York, in which the purpose of the convention was relayed. This time, the Republican position was well articulated as being one opposed to:
…the policy of the present administration, to federal corruption and usurpation, to the extension of slavery into the territories, to the new and dangerous political doctrine that the Constitution of its own force carries slavery into all the territories of the United States… to any inequality of rights among citizens; and who are in favor of the immediate admission of Kansas into the Union… and to the principles of Washington and Jefferson…
These resolutions are very similar to those presented in 1856, although they were clearly updated to fit the new political culture. For instance, the reference to the Constitution is a clear stab at the court’s decision on the Dred Scott case. While there were many other points to which the Republicans rallied, one of the most interesting phrases used by Morgan came just after the aforementioned points. The Republicans considered their cause to be one of, “preserving the integrity of this Union and the supremacy of the Constitution and laws passed in pursuance thereof against the conspiracy of the leaders of a sectional party…” This is an incredibly bold claim, especially considering the Republicans themselves were a sectional party, rooted in the North with almost no support in the South. Yet it articulates very well, the notion of the moral imperative against the corruption of the slave holding government. David Wilmot, who in many ways laid the initial ideological grounds for not only the Free Soil party, but also the Republicans, resided as chair over the procession. His speech was fiery and riddled with brilliant lines and arguments. To the issue of slavery, Wilmot asked, “shall we preserve this land as a free land to our posterity forever? These are the principles for which the Republican party is struggling.” By the end of the third day, and the third ballot, Abraham Lincoln had received 231 ½ votes, securing his nomination. This was in no small part, a product of the Ohio delegation which left Chase, and switched toLincoln as a better candidate than Seward who ran as a close second. Lincoln managed to get votes from nearly every delegation with the notable exceptions of California, Kansas, Wisconsin, and New York, which gave all seventy of its votes to Seward.
Lincoln: The Lynchpin of the Republican Coalition
On Election Day, November 6, 1860, four and one half million men voted. The outcome was decisive. Lincoln won 180 electoral votes carrying the entire North with the exception of New Jersey, which he split. The Democrats, who had been badly fractured by the fight over popular sovereignty, split their votes across three candidates, none of whom could raise much of a fight against Lincoln who had united the anti-slavery vote. Equally important in 1860 was, the fact that the Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress with clear majorities.
Abraham Lincoln is often considered the finest President in American history. This is for good reason, as the challenges he faced were second perhaps only to Washington, and his ability to overcome the challenges, second to none. Lincoln did not have the conventional inauguration. Having been forced to sneak into Washington late in the night for fear of assassination, all odds were pointed against Lincoln from the start. The difficulties and complexity of governing in those days would be enough to break most people, yet Lincoln was able to rise to the challenge and become something more that just another President. Lincoln was a political genius who put America and competence in front of pride, party, or personal feelings. Evidence for this thesis can be found through Lincoln’s entire career, but is epitomized by the choices he made in his cabinet. One of the most important attributes that helpedLincoln was his ability to put personal rivalries and anger aside in order to get himself and the country where they needed to be. Generally, politicians advance by making enemies, not friends. Lincoln defied that mold. His positions were not always popular, nor did they always succeed. However, everywhere he went he was able to at least convey his sincerity, at least make a logical and cohesive argument for his policies, not just attack his foe’s. Perhaps this talent came from his profession as a lawyer; perhaps it came from a desire to see the country succeed. When practical, he made clear and deliberate attempts to include the opinions of his rivals and foes alike. He seems to also be one of the few politicians who were able to forget past transgressions, one who could look past politics to do what was right for the country. Always it seems he put justice above popular opinion. For instance, when war fever had swept the country and led to fighting with Mexico, Lincoln was one of the few who questioned the validity of the war and the facts which led to it.
The best example of both Lincoln’s political genius and his sincere desire to do right by the nation was the selection of his cabinet. Choosing William Seward, Salmon Chase, and Edward Bates, all his former rivals, could not have been easy; getting them to work with each other had to have been even harder. Lincoln picked these men because he believed them to be the best men for the job, and facing that fact, could not deny their services to the nation. The fact that they were all jealous of him, and believed themselves to be superior, especially in the case of Seward, but still managed to pull the nation together is a testament to Lincoln’s skill and leadership. While there may have been a perception that Lincoln was merely a figurehead in a government run by others, the reality is that Lincoln was first and foremost a strong leader and a man of his word, still remembered today as “honest Abe.”
The election of Lincoln to the Presidency was the high point of the Republican party’s success. Their platform, while not varying that much from the Free Soiler’s position of 1848, or the Free Democrats of 1852, came at a time when the country seemed ready for it. Additionally the Republicans learned from the Free Soilers, and managed to organize their party structure in a far more efficient way. They were able to organize local institutions, and could thus blend local and national policy into one. The party’s policies from 1860 to 1865 are largely ones rooted in the waging of the Civil War. When the war ended, and Lincoln was assassinated, the party went through fundamental changes. After all, without Lincoln and the issue of slavery to act as a lynch pin between the radicals and conservatives of the party, there was bound to be a realignment. In the end, conservatives won control of the party, and the radical ideology that contributed so greatly to the party’s formation was forgotten. Indeed, the Grand Old Party as it would emerge in 1866 bears only mild resemblance to the Republicans of 1854.
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